Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) has just lost his son, who was murdered for something he did not do. Seeking revenge, Nils wages a war against vegan gangster, the Count and the Serbian mafia boss, Papa (Bruno Ganz). 


Scandinavian Fargo falls short of inspiration.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: If recent trends in crime fiction have taught us anything, it’s that, contrary to its benign, rather staid reputation, Scandinavia is in fact a cesspool of brutal and amoral criminality. (It seems the sole prerequisite, these days, for a bestselling police thriller is a diacritic mark in your surname.) So the subject-matter of Hans Petter Moland’s latest feature, a kind of wintery noir, is not altogether surprising. Nor that it features a protagonist who turns out to be considerably more violent, resourceful and ruthless than he appears. He’s less a character than a walking metaphor, meant to symbolise the entire region.
Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgard) is a Swede living in a remote, snowbound corner of Norway, where he rises early each morning to clear the highway that leads to the nearest town. It’s a thankless, Sisyphean task, yet Nils performs it with stoic dedication—and as the film opens, he’s being rewarded for his diligence by being named Local Citizen of the Year… and is even being courted by a local political party as a prospective candidate: the ‘acceptable’ face of immigration. (‘It’s a good thing, in this sense,’ the flack assures him.)
But then his son Ingvar is found dead, apparently of a heroin overdose. And though his wife succumbs quickly to grief, Nils is unconvinced: he knows his son was not even a recreational drug user, much less an addict. An encounter with one of the boy’s friends, Finn, confirms his suspicions: Finn, like Ingvar, was working at the local airport—but was also in the employ of a local drug lord, known only as ‘The Count’, and unwisely skimmed some of his boss’s supply. Marked for death, Finn managed to escape; poor, innocent Ingvar was just collateral damage.
Armed only with a sawn-off shotgun and his five-tonne snowplough, Nils sets off on a mission of revenge—one which winds up not only eliminating many of the drug lord’s crew, but soon expands to implicate a rival gang of Serbs as well, led by an elderly patriarch known as Papa, whose soft, amiable features—in a superb piece of casting, he’s played by the great German actor Bruno Ganz—conceal the fact that he’s the most pitiless and unforgiving of them all.
Billed as a black comedy, Moland is aiming here for the same delicate balance between laughter and violence as the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Trouble is, unlike that film, it’s not especially funny. At 116 minutes, the pacing feels lugubrious, and the action soon becomes monotonous—not helped by the director’s decision to follow each of the deaths with a black screen, with the victim’s name and a cross (or, in one case, a Star of David), in the manner of a funeral announcement, a joke which soon grows tiresome. (In fact, the effect is more akin to a video game.)
A little of the dialogue sparkles—a discussion on why the Scandinavian nations are more partial than warmer ones to welfare states, for example… though attempts to make comedic hay out of the name ‘Dickman’ remain stubbornly unamusing. The Count’s home, a monument to extravagant bad taste, is entertaining, if not laugh-out-loud funny; likewise his vitriolic relationship with his ex-wife, his fastidious veganism. But by far the best joke here—a sight-gag—arrives at the very end, and you can’t help but feel it’s been placed there deliberately, to reward the viewer for the patience they’ve shown.
But much of the plotting remains either inscrutable (why does Nils’ wife detest him so? And why does she seem to blame him for their son’s death?) or too-convenient. (Not only does Nils manage to track down his quarries with ease, he always seems to find them alone and unaware—easy prey.) We have the sense that everything is happening all too easily; Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay lacks the narrative complexity, the knotty, accumulating sense of reversals and revelation, necessary for any self-respecting crime thriller. It’s a kind of flat-pack mystery, schematic in construction and somewhat perfunctory in resolution.
Skarsgard and Moland have collaborated now on four features, from 1995’s Zero Kelvin to 2010’s A Somewhat Gentle Man. They clearly enjoy each other’s company a great deal. But their work together rarely rises much above the average. And for Skarsgard in particular, so often consigned to supporting parts, this supposed showcase is a disappointment. In the past 12 months we’ve seen the actor in both his loopy (Thor: The Dark World) and gravely thoughtful (Nymphomaniac) modes; both performances were essentially cartoonish—yet each of them resonated more than this one. In his grim determination and taciturnity, Dickman is presumably meant to recall Charles Bronson’s vigilante from Death Wish. But bloodletting aside, he’s never given much of a character—and we’re never given much of a reason to care.